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A look at the uniqueness of Chinese internet slang is a look at the uniqueness of Chinese itself.Take, for example, the word 囧 (pronounced “jiŏng”). Originally it had a few meanings such as “brightness,” but was rarely used in modern times.
While there are a staggering 47,000 or more Chinese characters, only 3-4000 of these are commonly used, which means a lot of leftovers to play with.
In emoticon fashion, Chinese netizens resurrected 囧 to convey “helplessness, disappointment, reluctance, shock, dislike, defeat, embarrassment, and the like“. Other examples of re-appropriating obscure, ancient words include 槑. While 凸 has become an emoticon meaning to give someone the finger.
Chinese is also packed with homophones. Sometimes different characters have precisely the same pronunciation, such as 是 which means “is” and 事 which means “thing”, but both are pronounced “shì.” Other times the difference is simply in intonation. Typing “shi” into a keyboard gives 68 different character options, each pronounced with one of the five different tones.
There’s even a famed poem called ‘施氏食狮史’ (pronounced “shī shì shí shī shǐ”), which in English means ‘Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den‘. It exclusively uses the sound “shi” and consists of 92 different characters.
With so many floating around it’s no surprise that homophones are a mainstay in Chinese puns. And one of the most interesting examples has to be “cao ni ma”:
肏你妈 (pronounced “cào nǐ mā”) is a common curse meaning “f**k your mother.” The first character is a more vulgar derivative of 入肉 (pronounced “rù ròu”, literally “enter meat”). If you have a close look you’ll see that 入+肉 = 肏, where the first character has been placed on top of the second. Although these days people prefer to use the character 操 instead of 肏 (it has the exact same pronunciation) or the grass radical 艹, which is used on its own, or 我艹。
Sometime preceding early 2009 a Chinese netizen, who has since been lost to the sands of internet-time, discovered that an “alpaca” can be loosely described as a “grass mud horse.” In translating those words to Chinese you get 草泥马, pronounced “cǎo ní mǎ.” Very similar to the above “f**k your mother,” except the intonation differs. The Grass-Mud-Horse is part of Baidu 10 Mythical Creatures and is one of the Chinese internet universe’s most enduring memes. Another great example of a homo-phonic-pun slang is 杯具.
Other words are shortened versions of phrases taken from big memes or hugely popular, usually scandalous stories. Understanding these requires a high degree of fluency in Chinese pop-culture and internet culture, as they act as witty short-cuts to past stories. A look at them reveals much about the concerns and interests of young Chinese people today.
It’s also fascinating to see which terms have crossed over from English (e.g. 粉丝 which is pronounced “fěn sī” and sounds like “fans” or “Oh my Lady Gaga!“), Japanese (e.g. 卡哇伊 pronounced “kǎ wa yī” and means “cute”) and Cantonese (e.g. 仆街). And of course there are a mountain full of swear words and slang that, like English, make use of balls, cocks, asses, vaginas, mothers and other more benign but no less evocative words.
A more extensive list can be found on ChinaSMACK’s glossary or read Eveline Chao’s “Niubi!: The real Chinese you were never taught in school.”